Boom, Boom on the Range

Where endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope play under the roar of U.S. Air Force jets on live-fire bombing exercises

Although he received the biological assessment on September 3, Bill Austin, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who will pass judgment on it, says he has not read it. The assessment has taken its place in a stack of other pending consultations.

Austin says, "I'm working on some other projects that are further behind, and I'm not sure when we might respond to that. . . . It's a matter of juggling things. The thing I'm working on I'm way behind on, like several months."

Defenders of Wildlife has challenged the Air Force's biological assessment, sending stacks of documents to Fish and Wildlife in the hope that Austin will rule that the Air Force's activities are placing this endangered species in legal "jeopardy."

Defenders' biologist Dennis Hosack, who also has made the pilgrimage from Washington, D.C., to H.E. Hill, told the wildlife service that the Air Force assessment "is deficient in several areas."

Maher, the expert from Montana, also has submitted comments challenging the document. She says the Air Force is "taking" pronghorn by harming and harassing them and upsetting reproduction, among other things.

"I strongly urge the FWS to conclude the Air Force's activities are extremely detrimental to the long-term survival of pronghorns, to do whatever it can to compel the Air Force to immediately cease all activities . . . that may threaten pronghorns, and to implement scientifically sound pronghorn management practices . . ."

Aiming for an injunction to get the Air Force to stop bombing H.E. Hill, Defenders wants to take sworn testimony from John Hervert, the state Game and Fish biologist whom it considers to be the authority on the current condition of the Sonoran pronghorn.

Incredibly, Justice Department lawyers initially filed a brief opposing Defenders' motion to depose Hervert. But last week, objections to the deposition were withdrawn. A lawyer for Defenders who was puzzled by the Air Force's opposition says he is equally mystified by its change of heart.

In any case, Hervert may be deposed within a week.
Asked to assess the Air Force's biological opinion, Hervert responds, "I don't think it was complete or all-inclusive."

What would he tell the court about the Air Force's overall response to pronghorn at H.E. Hill?

"I believe the Air Force needs to more aggressively search for alternatives to comply with the law, that's just my personal opinion."

He also might hand over his photos and videotape of Sonoran pronghorn, walking among unexploded bombs.

Luke Air Force Base employs three biologists, all of whom are convinced that more than enough is being done to keep the Sonoran pronghorn out of harm's way.

"The community thinks we're the evil empire because we work for the Air Force," grouses Bruce Eilerts, the affable chief of Luke's Natural/Cultural Resources Section. "People don't seem to realize that our true intentions are to help preserve the resources."

To support his claim, he notes his own credentials as the former head of the notoriously litigious Hawaii Audubon Society, and the Air Force's efforts in studying Sonoran pronghorn, including financial support for telemetry studies of its range.

Luke's biologists recently decided to begin their own monitoring of collared pronghorn, Eilerts says, but when they asked for radio frequencies of those collars, the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to give them up. The Air Force was forced to ask the service for a permit to track the collared animals.

It's a symptom of what Eilerts calls "bureaucratic little games . . . there's a lot of politics involved in this."

"Why are agencies that are supposed to be stewards of natural resources so resistant to share information?" he asks.

As he guides a tour to H.E. Hill for a reporter and a photographer (as well as a flight instructor, a second biologist and a public affairs officer), Eilerts adds, "I'm all for doing the right thing, but I don't like wasting time and resources barking up the wrong tree."

Eilerts says land inside the gunnery range is rich in wildlife and archaeological resources--including Native American camp sites and petroglyphs--and the land's best hope for remaining pristine is the military's oversight.

Recreationists are allowed on the range, with a permit, but Eilerts says the military keeps most areas off-limits to off-road vehicles and their sometimes rowdy owners.

"We help keep it Billy Bob-free," Eilerts says.
Eilerts says he has asked Luke officials about the possibility of finding new live-fire sites, but, "We are maxed out as far as where we can train. You need a lot of airspace to turn and maneuver."

Gary Blake, Luke's airspace manager, says that stopping live-fire exercises in pronghorn habitat is out of the question.

"Frankly, we've looked at everything we could, and I don't know of any other alternative which wouldn't impact our mission," Blake says. "There's no question in my mind that it would adversely affect training, and we don't have the luxury of having more pilots than we need right now."

John Hervert understands that the Air Force is on the pronghorns of a dilemma. But he says the people in charge of the Yuma Marine Air Station, whose pilots fly almost exclusively over the western half of the gunnery range, seem more eager to help. They have altered training schedules to avoid areas where pronghorn are known to gather at certain times of the year.

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